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Donovan White: Respect Native people, Native nations, and Indian sovereignty

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Indian nations and tribes are the original American sovereigns. Our Creator blessed us with life and liberty. Our grandfathers and grandmothers from the dawn of time established our Native nations to protect and serve our Native Peoples and Mother Earth.

When America declared Independence from Great Britain, our Indian nations were independent sovereigns, our territory was our own, and we were free, equal and independent people. Our Native nations and our Itaacaa (Leaders) signed treaties with the United States to preserve the best and highest form of government: self-government.

The President promised that “war shall forever cease.” In our treaty, our Indian nations reserved our lands as our permanent home. We are free and equal people today, as Sitting Bull said: “Each man is good in the sight of the Great Spirit…. We are free people, no one controls our footsteps.”

The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate wrote to Congress as the National COVID-19 Emergency was just beginning. First and foremost, we asked for inclusion in State-Local-Tribal Government Funding because we are Tribal Governments. Tribal Governments have police and fire departments, hospitals and health care systems, pre-school, K-12 schools, and tribal colleges, water, sewer and sanitation systems. Tribal Governments are part of drug interdiction task forces, we plan road construction, provide essential government functions and do the myriad of things that governments do.

Donovan White serves as chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, an Indian nation with homelands in present-day South Dakota and North Dakota. Courtesy photo

When there is an emergency, our Tribal Governments operate the ambulances, health care clinics, and hospitals and our Native people are on the front line as first responders. In the CARES Act, Congress included Tribal Governments in funding for Coronavirus Relief along with State and Local Governments.

On Tuesday, the Treasury Secretary announced the formula for allocating funding among the 574 Federally Recognized Indian nations and tribes that are Tribal Governments. Wrongly, the Secretary of the Treasury disregarded our status as Native sovereigns, our Treaty Rights to our homelands, and the status of our Native peoples as tribal members—citizens—of our Indian nations and tribes.

Tribal members—tribal citizens—under the original jurisdiction of Indian nations are recognized in the Constitution as “Indians not taxed.” Rather than count our tribal citizens, Treasury used the U.S. Census that counts those who self-identify as Native American by race or mixed-race to allocate funds. The Secretary’s action reflects a fundamental disregard for Indian nations as sovereigns.

After consulting with Indian nations for two weeks, Treasury asked for detailed comments concerning allocation of funds. Naturally, Indian nations counseled Treasury to consider our Indian lands and the extensive territory that we govern. Yet, despite the United States’ treaty pledges to assist us to make our Indian lands “livable” permanent homes, the Treasury completely disregarded our Indian lands and territories.

A statue of Albert Gallatin, the 4th United States Secretary of the Treasury stands on the north side of the Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C. Gallatin studied tribal nations and was a personal friend of Cherokee leader John Ridge. His work on Native languages has led some to call him "the father of American ethnology." Photo: dog97209

Finally, the Secretary of the Treasury maintains that Alaska Native state-chartered corporations can be considered Indian tribes. Yet the Secretary of Interior published a list of Federally Recognized Indian Tribes on January 30, 2020 that includes Alaska Native villages, but no Alaska state chartered corporations. Treasury’s effort to equate Indian nations with state law corporations is contrary to the Constitution, statutes, and laws of the United States.

We call upon Congress to set this to rights: 1) Use the Federally Recognized Tribe List Act to determine who the recognized Indian tribes are—(we are not state law corporations.) 2) Use Indian Country as the measure of Indian lands in recognition of tribal jurisdiction. 3) Put the Alaska Native Corporations with the other corporate businesses under Small Business Relief, Main Street Loans or corporate relief. There is no need to consult the Bureau of Indian Affairs on these clear rules of Federal Indian law.


Donovan White serves as chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, an Indian nation with homelands in South Dakota and North Dakota.

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